How to Find the Best Fares on European Flights
Booking a great fare to Europe has become increasingly difficult. Here’s how to bring down the cost of your next transatlantic flight.
First there is the question of timing. According to Kayak, the most-affordable airfares to Europe last year were booked eight to 10 weeks before departure—so you should start researching tickets at least three months out. You’ll find even better prices if your travel dates are flexible. As a general rule, European fares rise for travel beginning in the second week of May and don’t fall again until September. Expedia reports that the least expensive months to fly to Europe are February, March, and November. If you can, look for tickets that depart for Europe on either a Tuesday or Wednesday and return on a Tuesday; they tend to be lower, according to Kayak’s research. (See “Fare Finders,” below, for our favorite sites for finding European airfares.)
Considering alternative destinations can also yield big savings. Kayak found that the average transatlantic fares into Dublin, Moscow, and Reykjavík were among the lowest last year, averaging just under $1,000. By comparison, tickets to Paris and Rome were more than $1,300. Be mindful of airport taxes and charges, which can account for a significant portion of your airline ticket. The higher these fees are, the more difficult it is for airlines to drop prices and make a profit. The most recent Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum ranks the United Kingdom second highest in the world for airport fees (they can account for roughly $250 on a $1,000 ticket). Finland, Iceland, Spain, and Portugal are among the major European destinations with the lowest airport fees; you can expect more deals on tickets to these countries.
Smaller carriers have more competitive fares. Expedia’s analysis shows that prices on Air Berlin, Iceland Air, Air Europa, and Aer Lingus over the past two years have been 12 to 23 percent less than the market average. And keep an eye on low-cost carrier Norwegian Air, which is in the midst of launching direct flights from the United States (including New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles) to European hubs such as London Gatwick and Copenhagen. With one-way tickets between New York and London for as low as $192, the carrier will have a tough time turning a profit. We’re rooting for it.
Where to Go Next
New intra-Europe airline routes mean better access to up-and-coming regions. A few on our radar:
Mediterranean: Ryanair established its first Greek base in the city of Chania, on Crete’s northern coast, and now flies there from Dublin. The airline also has routes to Sicily’s new Comiso Airport, close to the south coast’s remote beaches and fishing villages.
Canary Islands (pictured): This Spanish archipelago off Africa’s northwest coast is a popular getaway for Europeans. EasyJet offers flights from Geneva to Tenerife, the largest of the seven main islands; Jet2.com has nonstops from the U.K. to beach-filled Fuerteventura.
Eastern Europe: Air Serbia’s expansion to the emerging cultural hot spot of Belgrade includes service from Prague; Etihad Regional and Swiss launched flights from Geneva. And Czech Airlines now connects Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia, on the Danube.
Dalmatian Coast: Croatia’s coast is even more accessible, thanks to Ryanair’s flights to the medieval city of Zadar from Paris, Manchester, Oslo, and Göteborg, Sweden; Germanwings flies farther south, into Split, from cities such as Düsseldorf.
Budget Airlines: What to Consider Before You Book
Seat Assignments: While legacy carriers such as Air France and KLM charge extra for premium seats (aisles; more legroom), most budget airlines tack on fees for any seat. Prices range from a few dollars to about $42 per person, depending on the airline, flight duration, and type of seat. Be sure to reserve seats online—some airlines charge double for you to pick your seat at the airport.
Airport Location: Budget carriers often fly to secondary airports, which can cost you time and money in reaching the city center once you land. Case in point: Germany’s Frankfurt-Hahn airport, 77 miles west of the city, is actually closer to Luxembourg city than to central Frankfurt. That’s almost a two-hour drive—$19 by bus or around $200 in a cab.
Luggage Fees: Be aware of bag weight, since standard allowances are often several pounds lighter than on legacy carriers. Compare KLM’s 50.7-pound allowance to Norwegian Air Shuttle’s 44 pounds. Each additional kilo (equal to 2.2 pounds, or about two pairs of pants) can cost upwards of $15 at check-in. Didn’t mention you’d be checking a bag? You’ll often pay double or more at the airport than if you’d prepaid.
Comfort Level: Be prepared for seats that may not recline and, in many cases, an inch or two less legroom than you’d get in a typical economy seat. Also, don’t expect complimentary meal service—snacks and drinks (sometimes even water) are nearly always for purchase only.
The Fine Print: Obscure fees can mean a costly surprise at the airport, so carefully read all terms and conditions on the airline’s website and be aware of service charges before booking. If you accidentally leave your boarding pass on the printer, for example, some carriers, such as Ryanair, charge nearly $30 to reprint it. And on Hungarian carrier Wizz Air, a carry-on can cost up to $27.
Legacy vs. Low-Cost
We compared two round-trip flights leaving at similar times from London Gatwick to Rome on a weekend in early June, pitting British Airways against budget giant EasyJet. The results may surprise you.
Initial Price: $287.13
Preflight Seat Selection: $0
Checked Bag (51 Pounds): $0
Initial Price: $203.07
Preflight Seat Selection: $9.80
Checked Bag (51 Pounds): $82
Our favorite tools for researching European flights—and why we love them.
Best For: Allowing vague search terms such as “New York to Europe” or “departing any Friday.”
Best For: Offering up money-saving insights, such as suggestions for alternate airports.
Google Flight Explore
Best For: The clear graphics showing the ideal dates to fly.
Best For: Its Explore function, which pinpoints how far your flight budget can go.
Best For: Including low-cost carriers in search results.
Best For: Factoring in bus and train routes—flying isn’t always faster.